Sonic Frontiers – adapting pinball mechanics for an open world playground

By Neil Merrett

Sonic Frontiers, released on Nintendo Switch in 2022, published by Sega

As an experiment in immersive open world game design, Sonic Frontiers can initially be a frustrating experience. However, if the player can persevere with the game’s mechanics, they might find themselves embracing its levels as expansive and entertaining playgrounds to be conquered with its springs, death traps, loop the loops and classic 2D and 3D Sonic high-speed shenanigans. 

Casino Night Zone, Spring Yard Zone, Carnival Night Zone – there are just a few of the levels in the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games of the 1990s that directly evoked the style and mechanics of a pinball machine.

Pinball GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The appeal to many gamers of playing through these videogames back in the day was the ground-breaking sense of playing a character that was more or less a sentient bouncing ball.

Sonic the Hedgehog was designed to hurl itself and the player at great speeds through tightly designed levels. With the right momentum behind them the player could roll the character up into a ball that can be shuttled around the game’s loops and tubes like a living ball. Ideally, with enough practice, this could be done while mostly avoiding death traps such as spike pits, bottomless falls or being crushed to death.

The illusion of speed

The early Sonic games were built on creating the illusion of travelling through levels at high speeds.

Whether they were the best and most satisfying games with regards to conveying the risk and reward of navigating lava death pits at high speeds is obviously open to debate.

However, as game design goes, pinball machines were a useful design mechanic for early Sonic the Hedgehog levels. They could be used to containing a character that would otherwise be at risk of constantly falling to their death or running into bad guys – that is if not rolling into a spikey ball of death.

The easiest way of building a satisfying sense of a character, one who is able to move at lightning fast speeds using the console hardware of the era was effectively to build a series of loops, tunnels with multiple routes to force the player through.

It was then down to the player as a living ball to decide when to speed up, slow down or make jumps at the right moment to avoid a painful death, or perhaps spring off bad guys to reach hidden paths and progress through the level.

Pinball becomes ‘Spinball’

Sega themselves seemed to embrace the links between pinball tables and Sonic games as it looked for new washs to cash in on its spiky mascot.

1993’s Sonic Spinball on the Sega Megadrive – released at the commercial height of the character’s appeal as a videogame icon – was entirely built around the concept of Sonic being trapped inside sprawling pinball-table levels.

For most of the game, the player would be managing the hedgehog using flippers and launchers in a game that embraced the appeal of firing sonic like a projectile that bounces around a highly enclosed level with death traps, springs and bouncing panels.

It arguably sought to remove the idea that Sonic the Hedgehog was a platform game character and not a sort of bouncy ball with attitude and a pair of sneakers.  However, Sonic Spinball was ultimately more of a curio than a bold new direction for the character.

Over the following decades – as more advanced hardware allowed for the player to explore larger 3D worlds – it was harder to use a pinball table as the basis for sonic levels and games with players wanting a more open sense of exploration.

The solution of the era seemed to be to build sonic levels as racing games with rigged tracks that he could run and bounce around, albeit with the ever-present risk of just shooting off the limits of a level and into the abyss of bottomless pits and oceans.

Now the player could move left and right, as well as jumping up and down or hurtling through tubes and loops – developers faced new challenges as to what made a good Sonic game.

The main areas where speed was shown off in 3D were effectively the moments of the game where the player had the least control. These sections such as loops limited the amount of movement a player could perform or removed their control entirely to provide a visual spectacle that didn’t end with the player losing all sense of character control.

For a good few decades, this is what arguably Sonic games had become. An attempt to try to satisfyingly combine the series 3D and 2D gameplay to build something that was fun to play, looked great and tried to let the player feel they were in control of the speeding blue blur.

2D To 3D Sonic GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Interestingly, one of the most well regarded entries in the series was 2017’s Sonic Mania that sought to refine the original 2D appeal of the series with a combination of remixed and brand new levels. The entire game was focused on embracing the more restricted and tightly designed levels of the series 90’s outings along with giving them a graphical and audio overhaul.

For fans of Sonic games, and perhaps even long-lapsed players of the series that spent inordinate amounts of times in the 90s playing through the character’s early adventures, 2022’s Sonic Frontiers offer the enticing prospect of Sonic game with expansive ‘open worlds’.

On a purely theoretical terms, childhood fantasies of a game where you could now speed through gigantic lush forests and desserts, or speed up giant technological towers that pierce the clouds could now be realised on current generation hardware.

An open world Sonic?

The open world element of the game is actually realised across five fairly expansive levels that start off as being somewhat sparsely populated.  Progress through the game by feeling out the map and completing mini-game like tasks  opens up the map and sees the construction of ramps, rails, springs and other methods to help the player speed and blast their way across the levels.

While the sonic series has tended towards more simplistic tales of heroism, self-sacrifice and friendship, the opening portions of the game – beyond a more enclosed introduction to explain some gameplay mechanics can be a little confusing.  The quest is to run around and find scattered memories of the title character’s friends while coming across gigantic titans that must be defeated as mini-bosses that can occasionally respawn.

Particularly for those unaccustomed to more recent Sonic 3D adventures, the open world portion of the game can feel a little loose in terms of gameplay and purpose, with seemingly no restrictions to where the player should go or how to get there.

In many ways, the challenges facing the developers of sonic Frontiers are not unique. 

Games are increasingly trying to build expansive worlds for us to get lost in. But the challenge, as highlighted by the best and worst of Sonic Frontiers, is try give the player a sense of purpose, challenge and control within them.

The word curate comes to mind in regards to the challenge facing programmers in making an open world work.  Curation in this sense refers to the importance of selecting, organising and building a world that the player can be trusted to play through and explore in a way the developers intend.

The player starts the game with the chance to bask in the technical accomplishment of building a Sonic game that loosely evokes the visual appeal and gameplay mechanics of hugely successful games such as Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring or Shadow of the Colossus. 

Some might find that the initial concept leads to a realisation that running through large open expenses and getting felled by electrified bad guys is not as fun or exciting a demonstration of speed as zooming around brightly coloured loop the loops in 2D sonic games.

Should the developers at Sonic Team have known their limits and have stuck to more restrictive and tested confines of 2D levels and 3D tracks? Actually, no.

Players with perseverance and sufficient forgiveness for the frustrating experience of semi-frequently accelerating off cliffs or mistiming jumps on a grind rail might find that the freedom to run from one miniature stunt course to another while fending off giant robots can become quite endearing.  Likewise, as they begin to understand the important of embracing performing stunts and speeding around the levels ramps and half pipes to unlock memory tokens and gain new abilities there is a lot of fun to be had.

When viewing Sonic Frontier’s levels as less of a somewhat chaotic and loosely defined open world, and more as giant playgrounds that have to be solved and navigated – the game is arguably much more appealing. Coincidently is also links back to the classic pinball roots of controlling a bouncy, friendly, cartoonish ball of destruction.

As the player is able to level up and unlock new abilities, such as the useful ability to propel themselves through the air with a literal sonic boom, they can become quite adept at using the swings and slides mechanics to hurl themselves around the 3D worlds. In these moments, the game plays as a kind of hyperactive skateboard simulator adventure with the pesky constraints of gravity or being hurt from a high fall removed.

Soon, the player begins to find themselves relishing how they might make their way up a towering mountain as they speed around looking for springs and other methods to fire themselves to their target.  Usually this involves relying on well timed jumps and blasting themselves onto a grind rail before trying a highspeed stunt to land on a zipwire to complete their journey.

At specific moments, the 3D camera angle will lock into a more classic 2D section of classic sonic gameplay that allows them to hop between tracks and then accelerate around some stunt course to build momentum to hurl themselves across a cannon or into a boss batlle.

These are usually a welcome and largely seamless shift between gameplay styles that provides a sense of control and variety in the gameplay.  It also handidly reminds you that you are still playing a Sonic game.

The game’s progression system also gives Sonic the opportunity to ramp up the character’s attack power and speed to clear pesky jumps, as well as giving them new abilities that can make trying to traverse the 3D and 2d sections at higher speeds more forgiving and entertaining.

It is an interesting gambit to design a game that offers dozens of hours of gameplay to reward the player for their perseverance by making the game more fun and satisfying to play if they can play through the first few hours of being underpowered and equipped for the levels.

This idea of perseverance also applies to the game’s combat, the whole appeal of Sonic is that he exists and moves at a pace well beyond that of his opponents.

Defeating bad guys in the game plays more like a puzzle that the player most solve then as a well-designed action game.  One example of this is certain types of enemies that must be defeated by circling around them and trapping them in a speed loop that funcitonbs like a lasso to break down their defences.  If the player can do this without taking damage from other enemies, they are then free to lock on and unleash some ludicrous high speed combos on the baddies.

Different bosses and enemies require the use of split second dodging or parrying of attacks, but this lacks the satisfying crunch of modern 3D action games such as the Soul series.

As more abilities are unlocked, Frontier’s combat get much more playful around using Sonic’s pace to play with the bad guys to expose their weak points and avoid being damaged in return.

Frustratingly, some encounters can require several deaths and basic text prompts to explain how to defeat as boss. This also can link to the game’s focus on open world exploration seeing them run into battles they may not be ready for in terms of speed, attack power of stamina.

But these are perhaps the compromises of trying to go open world with a game that has relied on making the player speed down more restricted track-like level.

Less restrictive game design in some ways requires more design compromises to make a player want to play through open worlds. 

Sonic Frontier’s maps are not technically sophisticated compared to other contemporary games that seek to build sprawling ecosystems filled with complex characters to engage and interact with.  The game’s open worlds do not have a tightly designed sense of physics and place. They also look kinda nice, in a slightly generic design style that seems repurposed from many modern sprawling fantasy adventure games.

What these levels do have for them, especially if the player can stick with the game’s sometimes confusing mechanics and levelling system, is that they become a lot of fun to race, spring, bounce, grind and launch their way through like being a carefree skateboarding hero that sometimes goes too fast for their own good.

Once the player realises they are battling through large puzzle boxes to be solved piece by piece – they find themselves enjoying a game that is a enjoyable 3D sonic adventure.

For a die-hard, or even a lapsed Sonic fan from the 1990s Sonic Frontier’s become a rather nice little experiment in evolving a gaming icon, regardless of its flaws.


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